Networks Salivating for College Football’s Return

It’s been a pretty rough summer in showbiz. Two of last year’s breakout cable hits—Lifetime’s UnREAL and USA’s Mr. Robot—have experienced both creative and ratings downturns. Nothing worked on the broadcast nets apart from game shows and competitions. Summer movie season? Don’t even ask.

Even the Summer Olympics, one of the most bankable media properties around, has been a headache for NBC, from the troubles in Rio to lackluster ratings despite the push to air nearly 7,000 live hours, most by far of any Games.

Perhaps that’s why networks—at least those lucky enough to have rights—are impatiently waiting for college football, which kicks off the 2016 season Labor Day weekend. “This is a golden age of college football on television” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, VP of college sports programming for ESPN. “If you’re a fan of any team in the country, you can find your game somewhere.”

As the dog days of summer turn into cooler autumn nights, here’s a look inside the three biggest trends shaping the TV gridiron.

Conference Networks Keep Subscribers on the Cord

As most of the TV industry grapples with declining linear ratings and falling subscriber numbers, networks including ESPN and Fox have been betting that super-serving college sports fans will keep them in the huddle.

“No one knows for sure exactly where the cable bundle is going to be in a decade,” said Michael Calderon, VP of digital media and programming at the Big Ten Network. “No matter how the distribution situation plays out, it’s going to be difficult for [fans of the schools] to go without [us].”

ESPN, which already owns the University of Texas-focused Longhorn Network and the SEC Network, made a further bet into this space by ending years of rumors and partnering with the ACC to launch its own network in 2019. A digital version, ACC Network Extra, launched this month with more than 600 live events available to ESPN subscribers. The ACC has had its own digital network for the past few years that syndicated some football and basketball games.

“Fan appetite for this kind of content is insatiable,” said Ben-Hanan. “Every time you think you’ve reached the limit as to what fans are looking for…someone proves that wrong.”

The Big 12 is now the only one of the NCAA’s five “power” conferences without its own dedicated network (though Texas is a Big 12 school).

Calderon said the Big Ten Network, which is heading into its 10th year, is looking to diversify its offerings to keep fans tuned in when the games aren’t playing. The network is launching its own College GameDay-like Saturday pregame show, BTN Tailgate, as well as a late-night series hosted by Mike Hall.

“It’s going to be different than anything we’ve ever done,” Calderon said.

The Big Ten Network will also relaunch BTN2Go this month, which will put a larger emphasis on users’ school affinity. The new app will ask each user what school is their favorite, and all of that school-related content will be pushed towards the front. “We want people to use BTN2Go on a regular daily basis, as opposed to just on game day,” he said.

Unlike the other college sports networks, BTN is owned by both the conference and Fox (though Fox has a majority stake), which makes for a bit of a tightrope in making sure every school gets equal airtime while trying to turn a profit for Fox. “We’re the only one that has this delicate balance and line we have to walk to please both of our stakeholders,” said Calderon. “That’s something we’ve gotten better at over the years.”

The Pac-12 decided to go it alone and wholly own their channels, though not being attached to an ESPN or Fox has likely impacted its carriage—DirecTV and Charter still don’t carry the Pac 12 Network.

“We really like our structure,” said Erik Hardenbergh, senior VP of public affairs for Pac-12, noting that they have added 500,000 potential subscribers in Los Angeles this year thanks to a deal with Frontier, and worked with Comcast and Cox to upgrade the national network to a higher tier. “We’ve had some really good momentum on distribution,” Hardenbergh said, though notes how it’s “disappointing that somebody like DirecTV won’t deliver the content that customers want.”

The conference was one of many players in the sports world to partner with Twitter as the social platform looks to live events to help grow its flagging user base. Twitter will stream some 150 different live events this year that will help “put a spotlight on some events that don’t get much coverage,” said Hardenbergh. He noted that the Pac-12 has more than 270 Olympians that competed in Rio during the Summer Games. “A lot of them will be coming back and competing on our campuses.”

The Playoff Has Been a Game-Changer

College football is heading into year 3 of its playoff format. And while the College Football Playoff hasn’t been without its hiccups—namely the committee’s botched decision to hold the semifinals on New Year’s Eve last year—it’s been met mostly with praise.

“They now have two years under their belt with the general consensus being that they got it right,” said Ben-Hanan, noting that the criteria for teams get in the championship game under the old BCS system was “opaque.”

And now those effects of the CFP are starting to take hold earlier in the season. One of the big tenets of the playoff format was a mandate that schools needed to play tougher non-conference games, but most big time schools schedule their non-conference games multiple years in advance. “This is the first year where you’re seeing the results of the emphasis on scheduling that is part of the CFP era really coming home to roost,” said Ben-Hanan.

The opening weekend of the season features an embarrassment of riches. LSU meets Wisconsin (at Green Bay’s historic Lambeau Field, no less); USC and Alabama will have their first matchup in 30 years; and college football blue bloods Notre Dame and Texas square off. Ben-Hanan doesn’t hesitate to tout it as “the best opening weekend in college football history,” adding that a big opening can energize the entire season.

“It didn’t just double the amount of interest in games,” he said of the playoff’s introduction. “You can watch almost any given week this fall and there will be a good eight to 10 games that have a direct impact on who is going to be in the CFP.”

Last season saw the College Football Playoff suffer a sophomore slump. Ratings nosedived 23% for the championship game despite a back-and-forth contest. Most of the blame fell on the sport’s preposterous decision to hold the two semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, one of the lowest TV-viewing nights on the calendar, which led to decreased interest in the championship game a week later.

“We did everything we could, but we ran into significant headwinds,” said Ben-Hanan. The early game on Dec. 31 kicked off while most of the country was still at work, while the late game aired while most were out celebrating the New Year. This year the semifinal games will still be held on New Year’s Eve, though it falls on a Saturday, allowing ESPN to move up the game times. “If you live anywhere in the country, these games should long be done by the time the ball drops.” Ben-Hanan said.

Other Sports Draft Off Football’s Appeal

While football is understandably on the mind of most college sports fans, those who program the games are already looking ahead toward basketball season. “I’ve spent an unbelievable amount of my time the last three to four weeks working on basketball,” said Calderon.

Possibly due to the major lack of college stars—anyone with a bright NBA future only plays for a season or two—the college basketball season often begins and ends with March Madness. For the networks paying hefty fees to air the games, trying to cultivate excitement for the four months that precede the NCAA tournament has been top of mind.

“We’re constantly working to find ways to make the regular season as vibrant and relevant as possible,” said Ben-Hanan. ESPN tries to stage big in-season events like the Champions Classic—which features heavyweights Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke and Kansas—and the SEC/Big 12 and ACC/Big Ten challenges.

That’s why ESPN’s bet on the ACC Network—though it boasts last year’s college football runner-up Clemson and the always-competitive Florida State—looks more like a basketball play, adding a balance to the football-heavy SEC Network. The ACC counts four schools among the top 10 in Forbes’ most recent list of the most valuable college basketball programs, including No. 1 Louisville, North Carolina, Syracuse and Duke.

“It was not that long ago that very many games weren’t televised at all…those days are gone,” said Hanan.

The number of moving parts will expand further by 2017 with the expected launch of ESPN’s stand-alone subscription app. Plans for it were announced earlier this month by Disney execs after the ESPN parent acquired 33% of BAMTech, Major League Baseball’s streaming-video arm. Football and basketball look to be on the OTT menu, along with niche-but-growing college sports like lacrosse.